These are but a few of the ways journalists and other content curmudgeons have characterized the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joanna Newsom. If I didn’t know better, I’d think these writers were describing a woman with the disposition and fortitude of an especially helpless Disney princess.
But no, the object of their dainty diction is a woman who plays brain-melting solos with only one hand on a million-stringed contraption the size of a small dinosaur while the other hand plucks out shapeshifting polyrhythms in time signatures so tangled they demand three or more semesters of calculus to comprehend, as poetry worthy of T.S. Eliot is propelled into the stratosphere by Beyonce-caliber vocal runs delivered with the splendor and swagger of Kate Bush then tethered back to Earth with pedal footwork so intricate it would trip up Michael Jackson — or, at the very least, Justin Timberlake.
Oh well, Black Sabbath did say that faeries wear boots. And Newsom’s boots, despite the delicate rhetoric that surrounds her, are made for kicking your heart to pieces. Despite her immense talents as a musician, songwriter, and performer, perhaps no contemporary artist who matters has inspired more divisive reactions or is more misunderstood than Joanna Newsom.
It’s not that critics haven’t been kind to the Pedal Harp Poet Of The Pacific: Newsom has never released an album with a Metacritic score lower than 85 — which, for those counting at home, denotes “universal acclaim.” But for every “delver” — that’s the name Newsom gives to her most ardent fans, owing to their obsessive and almost-ritualistic practice of “delving” into her work in search of meaning behind every syllable and strum — there’s a listener who, for instance, can’t get past Newsom’s singing voice; or another who lacks the patience for her unwieldy, seemingly freeform musical backdrops which, to ears unused to the structures of classical music, flow and unfold like oceans made of origami; and still others are distracted (or intimidated?) by Newsom’s immense vocabulary, which sounds as if it were sourced from a Renaissance-era SAT prep book once used by Leonardo da Vinci to help the student memorize 17 synonyms for “palanquin.”
These observations, however reductive or dismissive they may seem to Newsom’s most devoted acolytes, are not exactly incorrect. Yes, when she sings, she sometimes sounds like Tom Waits after taking a helium whippet. Yes, Newsom frequently writes extremely long songs that seem to go nowhere (until they go everywhere). And yes, she holds a special fondness for phrases like, “Magpie, this I bequeath!”
But are these legitimate criticisms, or are they merely three different ways of saying, “Joanna Newsom is weird”? In any case, it’s fascinating — and often disheartening — to watch how society views such a distinctly uncompromising artist, in particular a female one. (It’s telling too that Newsom’s least “weird” record to date, last month’s Divers, is also her most beloved, at least according to Metacritic and first-week sales numbers).
The most stubborn anti-Newsomites cite her weirdness as grounds enough to immediately dismiss her work; so certain are these critics of Newsom’s unworthiness that they even view her fans with suspicion. Meanwhile, aside from the predictable complaints over the length and obscurity of various words, we hear little from her opponents regarding the content of Newsom’s lyrical texts. As for the discussion of her music from the opposition, that’s generally limited to namedropping the instruments she uses that happen to have the goofiest names; in the modern lexicon, “glockenspiel” and “hurdy-gurdy” are codewords for “pretentious.” But even some of her admirers get so caught up in explaining what makes Newsom weird that they completely miss what makes her great. Regardless of whether you love or hate her work, Newsom is worth much much more than the absolute value, positive or negative, of her oddities.
Would Newsom’s work demand more serious interpretations if she were a man? Perhaps. Behold the army of adjectives, gender-coded and dismissive, unleashed by her fans and detractors alike: “whimsical“; “childlike“; “precious.” Newsom might as well be a woman sitting alone at a bar in the Financial District during happy hour for all the negging routinely thrown in her direction.
This gender bias hasn’t gone unnoticed by Newsom herself who, in 2010, recalled to The New York Times the press’ descriptions of one of her male colleagues within the regrettably-named “freak folk” coterie. Newsom told the outlet, “When people would put me and Devendra Banhart in the same sentence, they were coding his eccentricities as world-weary and ‘witchy’ and coding my eccentricities as childlike and naïve. I felt like it minimized my intelligence.”
Later on in that article, Newsom expressed remorse for letting those double standards faze her. And yet, five years later, these gender-based gibes persist and continue to get under her skin. In an interview with the Guardian from last month she described her relief upon discovering Blessing All The Birds, a blog devoted to feminist interpretations of Newsom’s work that also identifies examples of gender bias against Newsom on the part of mostly — but not exclusively — male critics.
“It was kind of a tonic to read it and know I’m not an insane person,” Newsom told the Guardian. “It was rounding up examples and pointing out the sexist shit people continuously write.”
Now, to be clear, lacking a taste for unabashedly ornate 16-minute mini-symphonies that use more adverbs than an MFA candidate on a Vyvanse binge does not make one a sexist. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t come as an enormous shock that a number of rock critics have fallen prey to subtler biases, subjecting Newsom to standards that many of her male contemporaries regularly fail to meet without comment.
Consider the issue of Newsom’s singing voice. On her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she arrived like the inverse of the cult band the Shaggs: Instead of blindly groping at pop sophistication with accidental, amateurish charm like that small town trio did, Newsom — well-educated, classically trained, and reared in Northern California — mindfully appropriated the voice of an Appalachian outsider artist, at times seeming to put an enormous amount of effort into sounding as shitty as possible. Her ragged and rustic vocal performance belied a tendency to meticulously micromanage every syllable and holler and yelp until her delivery reached a saturation point of earthy feigned credibility. The conceit could have easily proved disastrous, resulting in a record that was as much a chore to listen to as I imagine it was to make. But the results of Newsom’s shrewd, painstaking appropriation and her unrepentantly jarring vocal experiments were more affecting and entertaining than anyone could have expected. Contrary to the assessments put forth by many rock critics in 2004, the album was a success not in spite of her unusual vocal delivery, but because of it, as Newsom’s crackling pipes lent the 12 twilit folk hymns of The Milk-Eyed Mender a kind of frayed elegance that evoked the deteriorating grandeur of rural America.
Her vocals also, however, lit the fires of dissent among a number of critics and fans. Tiresome cranks could call Newsom out for a lack of authenticity, but most of the criticism thrown her way concerned her less-than-immediately-pleasing vocal textures. Again, there’s no accounting for taste. But even as her voice evolved to become fuller and fiercer, critics on both sides of the Newsom divide continued either to describe it as an acquired taste to be tolerated or to treat it with outright ridicule.
But Newsom’s voice wasn’t the only thing evolving, and nothing could prepare her detractors for the startling transformation on her 2006 sophomore release, Ys. Aside from her cleaner, stronger vocal performance, everything else about the record was more difficult and demanding. The songs were much longer; the album’s five tracks clock in at an average of 11 minutes each. Moreover, Newsom’s lyrics were harder than ever to tease concrete meanings out of, and neither the words nor the music followed conventional pop patterns of verses and choruses. Newsom had abandoned almost entirely the folk and blues traditions that kept her debut so grounded. Though constructed with obsessive precision, the album sounded to many on first listen like one long, improvised verse. And as if the harp wasn’t quaint enough, she enlisted the composer and longtime Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks to arrange a web of orchestral flourishes that gave flight to Newsom’s tunes, but on occasion threatened to suffocate the life out of songs that, absent an extraordinary measure of attention from the listener, tended to drift on the corners of one’s consciousness.
Repeat listens, however, revealed that Ys more than lives up to its staggering ambition. The record was conceived and performed with an integrity of vision that Newsom never risks compromising. And many critics and fans responded to and admired that ambition and integrity, sticking with the album through dozens of listens, until the fissures of Newsom’s massive contraption of instruments and imagery finally cracked open to reveal the warm heart within, rewarding audiences for their patience. But everything that made the record so great provided even more ammunition to Newsom’s opponents — and their attacks became more gendered than ever before. Critics derided her so-called “privilege,” her lyrical choices, and her age. One review likened the experience of listening to Ys to “being stuck in the seat next to a chatty, batshit backwoods pixie for an 18-hour plane ride.”
One fortunate element about the deeply divisive response to Ys was that it laid down a gauntlet ahead of her finest achievement yet, Have One On Me. Short of enlisting a menagerie of zoo animals to play in her orchestra pit and recording on the fucking moon, nothing she could have done would’ve shocked listeners this time around. And yet by committing to an 18-track album with an average song-length of around 7 minutes, she might as well have stamped “Haters need not apply” on the cover.
Have One On Me was every bit as ambitious as Ys, while matching or surpassing it in terms of every metric that matters. Its lyrics were as deeply personal as ever, but Newsom for the first time had the courage and confidence to share her life’s traumas without necessarily obscuring them in layers of allegory, imagery, and antiquity. The record had its share of historical and mythical shout-outs, and as before songs detailed the bucolic beauty of trees and animals and mountains as eagerly as the transcendental meditations of Emerson and Thoreau. But in writing a breakup album — and a heartachingly powerful one, at that — Newsom began to apply her poetry and storytelling to more mundane yet excruciating relatable details, like the process of moving out of a lover’s home on “Does Not Suffice.” And in doing so she crafted an artifact of sorrow that’s at once epic in scope, intimate in detail, and poignantly universal. For as much feeling as Newsom evoked with stories set amidst the imagery-rich, dream-like projections of her subconscious on Ys, the forthrightness and candor of Have One On Me forges a direct and intense psychic connection between artist and listener so that audiences can practically feel their own hearts slowly breaking along with Newsom’s throughout the two-hour song cycle.
Now after a five-year recording hiatus, Newsom has gifted Divers to the world — an album which, in many ways, is the spiritual follow-up to The Milk-Eyed Mender that fans of her debut have been patiently waiting for since 2004. Divers is her most accessible album to date, as Newsom veers closer to the structures and rhythms of pop music than at any other point since Mender. Meanwhile, she continues to expand her sonic palette by introducing an enormous arsenal of keyboards. The orchestral arrangements from Ryan Francesconi, who collaborated with Newsom on Have One on Me, and new accomplices like Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, are as baroque as ever. But she’s pared down the song lengths so that most hover around the modest five-minute threshold.
Listeners who followed Newsom down every rabbit hole of her past two releases may be disappointed that she’s once again embraced more conventional songwriting ingredients. Meanwhile, the lyrics on Divers offer a major point of departure for the artist. The album frequently prizes cleverness and conceptualism over catharsis as Newsom is heard here picking at her brain instead of at the raw and bloody shards of an exploded heart. In large part, that’s because the dominant theme here is not the loss or death of another, but her own death — which, considering that the patient in question hasn’t died yet, inevitably makes Divers more of an exercise in abstraction than her previous work.
But while many artists flounder when their subjects stray from matters of the heart and narrators turn outward to ponder space and time, Newsom’s observations are too unique and too intelligent for Divers to come across as mere navel-gazing. The record may lack some of the passion and emotional heft of previous releases, but Divers is still an extraordinary achievement — a brilliantly-conceived and immaculately-constructed album of catchy and intellectually robust rococo.
While it’s tempting to dust off that old rock critic cliché and say that Newsom has “matured,” this would be just as facile and one-dimensional a take as the ones from critics who simply branded her a “weirdo” and left it at that. But more importantly, to call Divers “mature” would do a disservice to her both her older work and Divers itself; because despite years of being accused of elfin faerie magic and living in a butterscotch castle atop Ice Cream Mountain, Newsom has always been one of the most mature talents of her generation. No, what sets Divers apart is something much more rare than maturity: wisdom. And lo and behold, Divers is the best-reviewed and highest-charting album of her career to date.
After 11 years, four albums, hundreds of thinkpieces, and thousands of efforts to exhaust the Oxford English Dictionary and the Animal Kingdom in search of synonyms for “shrill,” the rest of the world has finally caught up to Joanna Newsom. In the words of Newsom herself, “Well doesn’t that just beat all.”
10. “Sawdust And Diamonds” (from Ys, 2006)
For a woman whose every album carries a small novel’s worth of seemingly autobiographical poetry, listeners don’t know an enormous amount about Joanna Newsom’s personal life. In an effort to protect her close friends and family from scrutiny, she is famously guarded about some of the real-life events that have inspired her work. And no album of hers shrouds these personal traumas in more imagery and other poetic devices than Ys. In a number of interviews, Newsom revealed that she wrote the album during a period of great turmoil, and listeners and writers alike have played guessing games about the nature of these struggles. But to listeners with a sense of imagination, the imagery of songs like the 10-minute Impressionistic masterpiece “Sawdust And Diamonds” resonate strongly enough without autobiographical moorings. Here, Newsom vividly describes the disturbing realization that, in the face of life’s traumas, even the strongest relationships reveal themselves to be illusions propped up by “a system of wires” for the benefit of an audience and made up of fragile materials, like “cardboard and old magazines.” Do we need to know the exact nature of the trauma to appreciate that sentiment?
To paint this portrait, Newsom uses metaphors plumbed from the theater, taking Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” conceit two steps further. She and her lover are described as marionettes, glued together and tangled up in wires that hang from the rafters of life’s firmament. But while the two are merely playing parts in some cosmic play they do not control, they do so with a level of commitment to the narrative and to each other that Newsom hopes lasts “through the rest of my life.” This drama is only heightened as Newsom’s fingers chase one another with inhuman speed up and down her harp in a 10-minute display of sheer endurance.
“Sawdust And Diamonds” has the distinction of being the only song on Ys without Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral flourishes — not that Newsom needs any help to keep things thrilling. The vocals creep and crawl in unpredictable rhythms that are nevertheless as carefully constructed and masterfully performed as the flows of history’s greatest rappers. With no violins, bassoons, clarinets, or those wicked hurdygurdys to crowd her, a vocal and harp performance for the ages, and lyrics that require no specificity to conjure up catharsis out of chaos, “Sawdust And Diamonds” is Newsom at her purest and most powerfully affecting.
9. “The Sprout And The Bean” (from The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004)
In what’s likely the most recognizable song of Newsom’s career — thanks to its extraordinarily creepy use in the fine horror film The Strangers (and its less-than-creepy use in a Victoria’s Secret commercial) — “The Sprout And The Bean” is a slow-burning masterwork made up of elegant harp-playing and — for 2004 at least — an uncharacteristically restrained vocal performance from Newsom. Although most songs written in 3/4 time operate in stately, rigid Victorian rhythms, “The Sprout And The Bean” manages to turn the primitive components of a stuffy waltz into an ambling and aimless stroll through the woods. The result is a song that’s at once tranquil and unsettling — in other words, the precise area of tension Newsom has continued to explore throughout her 11-year career.
Meanwhile, Newsom’s lyrics concern the anxieties of growing up. Although some have interpreted the titular line about “the difference between the sprout and the bean” as pertaining to abortion and the distinction between, say, fetal tissue and a human baby, the rest of the song’s textual content suggests that the title is less concerned with the goings-on of literal wombs and more with the growing pains between young adulthood and maturity. “Should we go outside” and play, Newsom asks, or “should we break some bread” with a golden ring — i.e., get married? Maybe the choice isn’t the binary she imagines. Ideally her mate can make her feel as youthful and free as she feels on those nature walks, while also building a partnership that lasts a lifetime. That’s an elusive fate but one everyone wants — and with “The Sprout And The Bean,” Newsom encapsulates this desire beautifully.
8. “Cosmia” (from Ys, 2006)
On an album full of long and often meandering meditations on love and loss, “Cosmia” is Ys’ shortest and most focused track. While its title recalls one of the artist’s far-out treatises on constellations or space-dust, it is in fact named for a common genus of what one could reasonably call Newsom’s spirit animal: the moth.
Across many cultures, the moth symbolizes grief — a concept that, as far as the Great American Songbook is concerned, is generally conflated with depression. But there are four other stages of grief, and the one the moth most closely relates to is acceptance, as it leads weary mourners to the light.
That’s an uplifting thought, and it’s in keeping with the moods and motifs of much of Newsom’s work. While it may be a stretch to call her songs “uplifting,” they do tend to evoke a powerful sense of inertia that keeps Newsom’s narrators looking and moving forward no matter what grim turns their lives take.
But in “Cosmia,” as these symbols play out over a bed of minor-key harp strums that are as cold and shimmering as the night sky, Newsom relays a far more complex and sullen message than simply, “Everything’s going to be all right.” Twice, Newsom repeats the line, “I cannot keep the night from coming in,” suggesting that the healing properties of the moth, despite its ability to lead us to external sources of light, are powerless when the darkness is something that lives inside of us, slowly consuming the body through the mouth of the black soul within.
This is where narrator of “Cosmia” finds herself — dimly aware that, while there may be some light and happiness waiting at the end of her grieving, this awareness offers little comfort to those presently swallowed up by hurt. And in those moments of mourning, nothing can bring solace to one’s suffering — not even faith in the moth’s capacity to lead us into the light, nor the knowledge that our pain, like everything on this Earth, will someday end.
7. “On A Good Day” (from Have One On Me, 2010)
The average song-length on the sprawling 18-track triple-album Have One On Me is a daunting six minutes. And as on Ys, it’s a minor miracle — 18 of them, to be exact — that Newsom’s words and chords don’t collapse under the weight of her seemingly boundless musical and lyrical inventory. On the contrary, Newsom’s longest songs inspire a sense of hypnagogic wonder that music fans rarely experience outside of Newsom’s own albums and perhaps Van Morrison’s sacred 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, to which Newsom’s work has often been compared.
But it’s not the size of the song that matters; it’s the emotion in the commotion. And when given only 1:49, Newsom still finds a way to rip out your heart and burst it open with a sledgehammer. That’s how long it takes “On a Good Day” to chart the calamitous emotional devastation of a relationship’s end as well as the loss of a child — if not an actual child through adoption, abortion, or miscarriage, then at the very least a hypothetical child she planned on having with her ex-man (a novel interpretation put forth by Blessing All the Birds’ Melissa Marturano which, while not as viscerally soul-crushing as other theories is colossally sad in its own right — in large part because it’s so universal a feeling among those whose intense relationships come unraveled).
That would make for awfully heavy subject matter even for one of Newsom’s torrid 16-minute epics. But the reason the briskly economical “On A Good Day” is so powerful is because of the tension Newsom brews between her grippingly sad state of affairs and the sweet, harmonious harp and vocal melodies that are so familiar and comforting, they might as well be etched onto our souls by some unseen maker.
Unlike on Ys, where Newsom seemed to require an ocean-sized apparatus of metaphors, imagery, and chord progressions to even begin to deal with her life’s traumas, “On A Good Day” brings these widescreen tragedies into focus using the most starkly plain language and musical structures she can — and the impact is heartbreaking. Of course, once faced with the limits of this simpler, more conversational vocabulary, Newsom can’t help but impart layers of deceptive complexity onto the lyrics. On the title’s two refrains, she sings, “On a good day you can see the end from here,” followed by, “On a good day you can feel my love for you.”
But the word “good” has a wildly different meaning in each context: In the former, her usage is idiomatic, adopting the language of seafarers to mean “clear” — or in her case, “clear-headed” or “self-aware” — as if the psychic storm in her head has finally broken and the mind’s eye can now see for miles. The second time, however, she applies a more traditional usage: here, “good” simply means “happy.” And therein lies the song’s stomach-dropping prognosis: In the narrator’s relationship, she can either be honest with herself or happy, but she can’t be both. She must choose which “good” she wants her days to be. And knowing Newsom, she’d rather face reality and chart a course straight for the rocks than lie to herself any longer.
6. “Sadie” (from The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004)
Before Ys came along to give Newsom’s haters innumerable new reasons to despise her, there was “Sadie”: the second — along with “The Sprout And The Bean” — of two foci within The Milk-Eyed Mender’s emotional ellipsis, and Public Enemy No. 1 for many of indiedom’s most committed anti-Newsomites.
The song became an ideal target for haters for two reasons. The first is Newsom’s delivery of the word “Sadie”: It isn’t just the timbre that’s ear-piercing. The two notes to which she cries “Saaaaadieeeeee” possesses a sing-song lilt that’s unpleasantly out-of-key with the harp-playing underneath, giving off the same vibe as the “One Two Freddy’s coming for you” nursery rhyme in A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Newsom is too much of an obsessive to put to wax any combination of notes without a calculated reason. This ties into the second reason the song has suffered a fair measure of snark: “Sadie” is not the name of a friend or a lover; it’s the name of Newsom’s dog who passed away.
That’s part of why Newsom made this refrain so uncomfortably penetrating: She’s calling out for her canine friend — hence the sing-song cadence — but the dog is deceased, which explains her disharmonious vocal delivery. Her cries of “Sadie!” are ones of raw, primal anguish that express the profound loss of losing a pet. Snark all you want — and Newsom’s detractors did — but losing a pet is unbelievably fucking sad and totally worthy of such an emotionally wrecked song. (Perhaps there’s yet another reason she brings such a jarring effect to bear on the lyric: In order to call Sadie home, Newsom must reach her all the way in the land of the dead, and maybe she hopes that her atonal caterwaul is sufficient to curdle the blood of some sympathetic demon and convince him to release her lost hound of hell).
Even so, in a rare instance of Newsom publicly explaining the meaning of a song, she told Tiny Mixtapes in 2006 that “Sadie” was inspired by three figures in her life: Her dog who had recently passed away, a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer, and another friend from whom Newsom had grown apart. So her dog only comprises one-third of the song’s inspiration. But even if the song’s subject had been Newsom’s sweet snow white Labrador and her alone, it can’t be ignored that Sadie signifies something bigger than Woman’s Best Friend. The creature’s habit of burying her bone, excavating it, gnawing on it, and repeating the whole process again and again until she dies is a brutally spot-on metaphor for how non-dogs like you and I and Newsom deal with painful experiences, depressing memories, and other unwanted yet inescapable thoughts. The buried bones are sources of pride for Sadie, but for us they are skeletons, fears, and anxieties — or, put another way, fears and anxieties over one day becoming skeletons ourselves. We would happily keep these thoughts interred forever if we could, but like the dog who always digs up her bone, we can’t stop revisiting these fears, no matter how hard we try.
And so we gnaw. And gnaw. And maybe even pray to God in an effort to “suspend the notion that these lives do never end,” even if we feel in our hearts that the Bible is as much a work of crowd-pleasing commercialized fiction as All Dogs Go To Heaven. We’re more likely to receive a response — let alone one we like — by praying to Newsom to comfort us with more jaw-dropping songs like this. “Sadie” couples exquisite, effortless melodies with some of Newsom’s earliest and most poignant meditations on death — a form she’d perfect on Divers — meditations that are subtle enough to keep the storms of despair at bay, but sad and smart enough to keep us on this dusty path of self-discovery, even if it means digging for answers in the darkest garbage piles of our minds where we’d rather not tread.
5. “Leaving The City” (from Divers, 2015)
Two of the most common recurring motifs throughout Newsom’s work revolve around places and change. And because Divers is predominantly concerned with the ultimate change — death — when these motifs collide on this album, it’s with greater urgency and effect than on previous outings. For example, older songs like “Emily” and “In California” concern the ways we view our hometowns in very subtly different lights as we grow old with age and experience. Divers, however, finds Newsom witnessing far more startling changes, like watching a city evolve before her very eyes. This theme is captured by “Sapokanikan,” the first track Drag City unveiled to promote Divers. With a big assist from its P.T. Anderson-directed music video, the song draws a thick, bloody red line connecting the gentrification of New York City in the 21st century and the conquering and purging of indigenous people from lower Manhattan in the 1630s. The agent of displacement then was small pox; today, it’s Starbucks.
Divers’ second single, “Leaving the City,” is also about places and drastic changes. The song is, quite literally, about “leaving the city.” But it’s also about the fear of your city leaving you — which is another way of saying it’s about the harrowing and horrifying thing we fear most: death.
These anxieties loom heavily over “Leaving the City” and throughout Divers. Newsom recently told Uncut that her decision to marry Andy Samberg was like “inviting death into your life,” and indeed, something has changed within Newsom’s soul. Abandoning civilization for a bucolic country life is the kind of narrative that on any other Newsom record would be told with gorgeous imagery and guarded yet unmistakable optimism. But here, the narrator possesses no illusions about the existential dangers of adopting a rural lifestyle, particularly as winter arrives, “brightly bleeding” the ever-shorter days dry of sunlight and eating away at “what we are allowed” — a phrase Newsom repeats twice to signify and emphasize the precious time she and her lover have left before they must leave this city, and every city, forever in death.
It’s a huge bummer, but it’s also a sobering reminder that the collective, crippling seasonal depression that plagues residents of New York City every year from November through April can’t be avoided by simply skipping town. If anything, leaving the city would bring about an even harsher fate.
Or would it? Through her struggles to survive and sustain herself in the unforgiving wild, Newsom’s narrator becomes more acutely aware of life’s impermanence, of her own mortality, and of how precious the years we have left truly are. On the contrary, the city dwellers Newsom evokes are too busy chasing fame and fun in expensive hotel rooms to think about death in terms other than the legacy they hope to leave behind (“We seek our fame and our credentials,” she sings, “paned in glass, trained to master incidentals”) and a depressing metropolitan equation New Yorkers know all too well: “The longer you live, the higher the rent.”
Newsom packs these ideas and more into a tight, economical 3:48, delivering the words with thrilling internal rhyme schemes that remind us she possesses the kind of impressive verbal dexterity one usually doesn’t find outside of hip-hop. This all sets the stage for … hold on, what’s that tearing through the song’s musical and lyrical crescendos? Could it be … an electric guitar? On a Joanna Newsom song? And perhaps even more surprising, is that something almost like a rock ‘n’ roll drum kit playing something almost like a rock ‘n’ roll drum beat?
It’s true: Joanna Newsom has written a bonafide rock song. In an interview with Entropy, Marturano of Blessing All The Birds refers to “Leaving The City” as “medieval metal.” And while this is a hilarious exaggeration, it’s not entirely inaccurate. If you played “Leaving The City” for a peasant from the Dark Ages who had never heard anything heavier than a harpsichord, it would probably sound like Pantera to their ears. To modern listeners, however, “Leaving The City” is an eerie, elegant, and urgent rumination on death: a topic few artists other than Newsom have the lyrical chops to explore so eloquently and intelligently.
4. “In California” (from Have One On Me, 2010)
Newsom’s musical and vocal lineage is sourced from the Appalachian backwoods of Virginia and Kentucky, as she taps the eternal souls of Texas Gladden and other balladeer hill-people for inspiration. But her Northern California upbringing places her more closely to the hippie-child she plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. And on “In California,” she embraces her inner Golden State warrior and comes out on the other side with a folk song that’s every bit as sophisticated as the best climate-controlled croonings from Joni Mitchell (who, despite her West Coast bonafides, was born in Canada).
While the influence of Mitchell comes on strong, Newsom perhaps most closely resembles Joan Didion, sharing the author’s predilection for seeing anxiety and uncertainty in this “sorry golden state” that so many others warmly embrace for its idyllic environs. For Newsom, it’s not the sun but her heart that is “yellow as an ear of corn” and “heavy as an oil drum” while she waits for a lover who will never come. The fact that Newsom clearly loves her home state makes these observations all the more tragic — after all, if she can’t be happy here, can she really be happy anywhere?
What makes “In California” really special, however, is that it features the catchiest chorus Newsom has ever crafted — the cherry atop this sundae of misery — that spins an unforgettable melody so comforting and appealing, despite the emotional wreckage it carries, that she has no qualms about replicating it in full on Have One on Me’s harrowing closer, “Does Not Suffice.”
3. “Baby Birch” (from Have One On Me, 2010)
The most powerful and fitting description of “Baby Birch” came courtesy of Slate’s Jonah Weiner, who called this heart-shattering elegy for a lost baby a “nine minute ache.” Indeed, Newsom leaves little room for much else here other than this overwhelming ache. Until the track’s crushing denouement, the instrumentation, composition, and structure is more simple and spare than on any other Newsom song that dares to round the seven-minute mark. As Newsom imagines playing with and caring for her child who no longer exists, she’s too exhausted and defeated to bother with the kind of breathtaking harp runs she often uses to telegraph a sense of swagger and self-determination, even when the lyrics suggest that all is lost. No, on “Baby Birch” there is no escaping this profound sense of loss, and no hiding it under layers of virtuosic solos, orchestral flourishes, or florid language.
About the only time Newsom opens things up to let other instruments accompany her misery is near the song’s conclusion, when waves of distortion, atonal and drawn-out like primal screams, threaten to rise up over her head, leaving her to drown in a sea of crying voices. The only thing keeping her afloat here is a disturbing confession that is equal parts motherly and homicidal:
“I saw a rabbit as slick as a knife and pale as a candlestick/ And I had thought that it’d be harder to do but I caught her and skinned her quick/ Held her there kicking and mewling, upended, unspooling, unsung and blue / Told her, ‘Wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I will find you.'”
If Newsom hadn’t already obliterated any justification for labeling her “childlike,” she does so here with this breathtaking display of darkness and honesty.
2. “Good Intentions Paving Company” (from Have One On Me, 2010)
Perhaps the biggest revelation of Have One On Me is Newsom’s emergence as one of the best pianists in pop music today. From the mind-blowing finger runs of “Soft As Chalk” to the enormously catchy and sophisticated melodies of “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom proves that she could have become one of the greatest performers and songwriters of her generation without even picking up a harp.
“Good Intentions” was the first single off of Have One On Me and with good reason: This is the closest Newsom has ever come to writing a pop hit. And had it been released in the 1970s — that era of piano women and men like Joni Mitchell and Elton John along with acts like Steely Dan whose wells of musicianship were as deep as their commercial appeal — it would have been a huge single destined to become a staple of classic-rock radio.
By that description you might assume that “Good Intentions” was a throwback to the shorter, more traditionally structured songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender. But in fact the song is seven minutes long and has exactly zero choruses — though that hardly robs the joy from its effortless and effervescent melodies, which ascend and descend and overlap and interplay with one another in ways that are playful but not at all slight; carefully refined but as instinctively appealing as something by Michael Jackson or any other king of pop.
The song also boasts one of Newsom’s most clever lyrical conceits. The metaphor here finds Newsom driving with her lover on a highway that is maintained by the “Good Intentions Paving Company” — get it? She and her lover are on the road to hell and she has two options: the first is to turn around because, well, she’s been here before, and she’s learned that throwing herself face first into love and holding nothing back — with the best of intentions, of course — has never ended well, especially not when the man in the passenger seat holds everything back and, she suspects, is only there for the free ride.
But the second option is to keep the faith and stay the course. After all, Newsom loves him. The past doesn’t have to repeat itself. Or maybe she can be the exception to the rule that trusting, loving people invariably end up in relationship hell. It’s possible, too, that Newsom has already accepted her fate, but she’s simply not ready to let go.
The predicament is no fun for anybody — except the listener — though despite the desperation evident in the lyrics, things don’t sound so bad as long as Newsom keeps hitting those jaunty octave rhythms on the piano: the musical equivalent of flashing a fake smile. But once Newsom slows things down to a crawl (and even throws in a sad trombone solo), her aching becomes painfully real for the audience. “No amount of talking is going to soften the fall,” she resignedly sings, admitting that although her lover burns “real hot and real cold,” she feels at “home on that range.”
In the end, she reaches an agreement with herself: She won’t keep driving and she won’t turn around. She’ll just pull over so her man can “hold me till I can’t remember my own name.” The message is clear: In relationships, you have to stop worrying about where you’re going and where you’ve been and just live in the moment.
That Newsom reintroduces and ends the song on those carefree piano octaves once more may suggest that the crisis has been averted, and that in order to keep moving forward she simply needed to stand still and relearn how to live in the moment with this man. But more likely, the crisis has only been delayed. And indeed, on the final track on Have One On Me, which ends an 18-song cycle about a single relationship, Newsom is packing her things and moving on. Oh well, you can’t say she didn’t try. Nor can you say that the union was all for naught — after all, they did make some beautiful music together.
1. “Emily” (from Ys, 2006)
For the first four minutes of Ys and its opening track “Emily,” you might be forgiven for believing that all her haters have a point. Six seconds into the track and Newsom is already making up bird names. The meadowlark and the “chim choo ree” are only the beginning of her bucolic imagery, which is often very pretty — I particularly like the “sun pouring wine” into the “bones of the birches — though none of it seems to add up to much on first listen. Nor does the song reveal much intent of taking the listener anywhere, despite the urgency that Van Dyke Parks’ hectic orchestral flourishes lend to the proceedings. Three minutes later, she’s still in her childhood backyard skipping stones with her sister. That’s when we hear the notorious, cutesy mnemonic device about the meteor, meteorite, and meteoroid, “a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.”
“Thee.” I wonder how many potential fans hit the “skip” button to the second track thanks to that little archaic syllable, only to be subjected to the even-more-precious-at-first-glance fable, “Monkey And Bear.” That’s a tough chain of events for even the most patient — or pretentious — listeners, and I can imagine many of them in that moment deciding once-and-for-all that Joanna Newsom simply isn’t for them.
What a shame then that, had these listeners merely waited to hear a few more seconds of “Emily,” they might have instead become devoted acolytes of the cult of Newsom — die-hard “delvers” for life.
That’s because after the mnemonic nursery rhyme, “Emily” undergoes a startling shift. Beginning with a deeply ominous minor string chord, Newsom returns to the progression and vocal melody used at the start of the song, but suddenly the narrator and her sister are older, and Emily is seen holding a cold compress to an ailing Newsom and “the mess I’m in.” This is as much detail as we’re given about what’s happened to Newsom, but considering how dark a turn the song takes from this point forward, it’s very likely some unspeakable trauma.
Whatever the real story behind this scene, the language that follows is extraordinarily poignant and somber. Going forward, the trees and animals that brought her so much joy as a child are described as cruel and ugly manifestations of an unforgiving Mother Nature — the same Mother Nature that took a close friend away from her and maybe more. There’s perhaps nothing sadder than when one of life’s traumas has such lingering, earth-shattering after-effects that a person’s old sources of happiness have gone dry or corroded and toxic. Even the skipping stones of the first verse take on a powerful new meaning. Newsom had described Emily frowning after a stone stops skipping in the water sooner than expected. This is a crucial detail, underscoring the halcyon days of their youth — when the worst possible thing these innocent youths thought could imaginably befall them is a prematurely sinking rock.
As for the meteor nursery rhyme, it’s an enormously touching illustration of two sisters who love and care for one another deeply, even in the face of what looks to be a vast personality gulf between Joanna and Emily — one is a consummate artist who has the talent and the verve to do whatever the fuck she wants, while the other is an astrophysicist. Newsom doesn’t even care enough about her sister’s field to get the details right — it’s the meteoroid that causes the light while the meteorite is the stone from the void, but then how else are you supposed to rhyme void with meteoroid? These are the things that matter more to Newsom than celestial verisimilitude.
But despite that distance, the women are there for each other. And this rich personal drama, conveying intimate and intense pathos to the listener without divulging specific details would be impossible to do in a traditional pop music setting. And so bristle if you like at Newsom’s floating song structures and 12-minute track lengths. But these qualities, dismissed by some as “pretentious,” are what allows for the song’s elegant parallel structure, the way its narrative slowly and unexpectedly unfolds, and the steady crescendo of volume and chaos that, by the end of the song, has Newsom and Parks’ orchestra pit singing and playing with such controlled intensity, leaving the listener exhausted yet invigorated by the possibilities of familial love and music itself.
Not bad for an elfin fairy princess.